Tag Archives: Ph.D

Jew of the Week: Franz Boas

Father of American Anthropology

Franz Boas

Franz Boas

Franz Boas (1858-1942) was born in Germany, the son of Jews who had left their Orthodox upbringing and raised their children in a very liberal environment. Boas studied physics, geography, and mathematics at a number of prestigious German universities. Although his first Ph.D was in physics, Boas was more fond of geography. In 1883, he went on an expedition to Baffin Island to live among the Inuits. He soon realized that the prevailing European notion of aboriginals as uncivilized “savages” was wrong, and concluded that “we ‘highly educated people’ are much worse, relatively speaking”. From there, Boas continued his studies of non-European cultures, working from Berlin’s Royal Ethnological Museum. He came to the conclusion (unpopular at the time) that all human beings and all cultures were equal. Ironically, he was a victim of rising anti-Semitism, and was constantly prodded to convert to Christianity in order to be accepted in German society. Boas moved to the United States and became the assistant editor of the journalĀ Science. Two years later, he was appointed head of Clark University’s new department of anthropology, and in 1896, began lecturing at Columbia University as well. He soon developed a Ph.D program in anthropology – the first in America – and cofounded the American Anthropological Association. His students would go on to found more Ph.D programs in universities across America. Not surprisingly, Boas is often referred to as the “father of American anthropology”. Over the years, Boas played a central role in developing the science of anthropology. His 1911 The Mind of Primitive Man was the major textbook on the subject for years, and his writings heavily influenced just about every branch of anthropology. Meanwhile, Boas was a vocal opponent of racism, eugenics, cultural evolution, and social Darwinism, and it has been said that he “did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.” During the Nazi era, Boas worked tirelessly to help German and Jewish scientists escape Europe, and assisted many of them in finding positions in America. He was also editor of The Journal of American Folklore, founded theĀ International Journal of American Linguistics, served as president of the New York Academy of Sciences, as well as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. By the time of his death he was among the most well-known, influential, and respected scientists in the world.

Words of the Week

The righteous do not complain about wickedness, but increase righteousness. They do not complain about heresy, but increase faith.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Jews of the Week: Waksman and Schatz

Selman Waksman

Selman Waksman

Selman Abraham Waksman (1888-1973) was born near Kiev to Jewish-Russian parents. At 22, he immigrated to the U.S. and began his studies at Rutgers University, where he got a Masters in Science before getting his Ph.D. in biology at UC Berkeley. He then headed back to Rutgers to take over the soil microbiology lab, focusing on the study of soil organisms and decomposition. Building on the work of previous scientists, Waksman soon found that bacterial substances could be used to fight bacterial infections. He shifted his lab’s focus towards finding “antibiotics” – a term which he coined. Over the next couple of decades, his lab discovered a dozen antibiotic compounds.

Albert Schatz

Most important of these was streptomycin, discovered by Waksman’s student Albert Israel Schatz (1920-2005). Schatz also came from Jewish-Russian lineage and originally wanted to be a farmer. He studied soil microbiology, and after serving in a military hospital during World War II, decided to research treatments for tuberculosis. Working in Waksman’s lab, Schatz discovered and named “streptomycin”, which would become one of the most important antibiotics in history, and is still found on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. Schatz made no profit from his discovery, giving up his rights to the drug so that it could be distributed as widely and cheaply to as many people as possible. Unfortunately, he was never given the credit he deserved, with the Nobel prize going only to Waksman in 1952. Both biologists continued their contributions to science, and were decorated with many awards. Waksman also developed microbe-resistant paint for ships, enzyme-enhanced detergents, and a compound to prevent fungal infections of vineyards. He wrote over 400 papers and published 28 books. Meanwhile, Schatz campaigned against the fluoridation of water, proposed new theories for tooth decay and the extinction of dinosaurs, and published over 700 papers and 3 textbooks. Both were ultimately credited for streptomycin, which The New York Times ranked among the Top 10 discoveries of the 20th century.

Words of the Week

“Let there be light” means that all the world – even darkness – should become a source of light and wisdom. It is our job to reveal the hidden light – especially the light that you yourself hold.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe